I’ve been mildly unwell this morning, so I’ve been in bed for most of the day. For some of the time, I read War and Peace.
I just finished a chapter about a young noble woman being drawn, despite her French education and artistocratic background, into the spirit of a Russian folk dance. The scene is full of hints of the unconscious.
The scene, the book, the day spent in the internal space of my bedroom with the door shut, took me somewhere near a place that Rilke described as
… increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret …
I love the dark hours of my life
which deepen my senses;
in them, as in old letters, I find
my daily life already lived
and, like legends, distantly beyond.
Certain literature deepens the senses and takes us into these dark hours.
Mark Edmundson, in Why Read?, suggests that this is one of the functions of the humanities in general and English teaching in particular, to help us grapple with the big existential questions like What does it mean to live a good life? How are we made happy?
Humanism is the belief that it is possible for some of us, and maybe more than some, to use secular writing as the preeminent means for shaping our lives. That means that we might construct ourselves from novels, poems, and plays, as well as from works of history and philosophy, in the way that our ancestors constructed themselves (and were constructed) by the Bible and other sacred texts.
Mark Edmundson, Why Read?, p. 86
Thinking about English teaching like this (instead of thinking about it exclusively in terms of gaining literacy skills or learning how texts are constructed) opens the windows of the classroom and lets fresh air in. Students sense the relevance of the subject; it’s then connected to the questions that matter to them as they make the transition into adulthood.
After reading the War and Peace chapter, I turned on my iPad and browsed through some old BBC TV programs. I found a 1985 adaptation of one of my favourite novels, Bleak House, so I watched the beginning of it.
I’ve tried to find a clip from the beginning that I could post here, but can’t. Let me try to describe it.
The beginning of the first episode is slow and dark, and I found it utterly absorbing. We see a close up of the thoughtful face of a young girl. There’s a grandfather clock ticking slowly in the background – no music, just the sound of the clock – and then we hear a woman’s voice telling the girl that her life is going to be a life of drudgery and duty, and that it would have been better if she’d never been born. We then see the child grown up and arriving in London for a meeting about a new line of work (no doubt involving drudgery and duty). She makes her way to the meeting, but we see only glimpses of her through a thick fog, various people picking their way through the mud of a London street.
By the end of ten absorbing minutes, I found myself asking questions: Was this really what London was like 150 years ago? Is this what some parts of the world are like now? Is such a life inevitably ‘nasty, brutish and short’, or is there room for kindness, as Dickens implies, on streets like these? Are people born to lives of inevitable drudgery? Does duty imply drudgery? They were my questions; another viewer would have others.
Then I looked again at the beginning of the more recent (2005) BBC adaptation. (You can view it here.)
This 2005 version is so different from the 1985 one: the breathless pace and anxious mood, the switching back and forth so that we’re introduced to many principal characters and central themes (as opposed to the handful of characters and the single theme we experience in the 1985 version).
The 2005 version evoked new questions for me. Are the differences between the two versions reflective of differences between 1985 and 2005? Why do Esther and Nemo stare at each other in the street; is life full of encounters that aren’t planned but are somehow meant to be? Are there undercurrents in life that our rational minds know nothing about? Why are some people (like Lady Deadlock) apparently trapped in a life that they despise? Again these are my questions; a class of students would have so many different ones.
After watching both versions, I wanted to be reminded of how Dickens himself begins the novel, so I re-read his opening paragraphs:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor
sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As
much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from
the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a
Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine
lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots,
making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as
full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for
the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses,
scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers,
jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill
temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of
thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding
since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits
to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points
tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits
and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the
tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and
dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.
Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on
the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping
on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and
throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides
of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of
the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching
the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck.
Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a
nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a
balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
This is rather like the 1985 TV adaptation. More questions. Were we in 1985 less aware of the possibilities of story-telling in film? What does the 2005 version do that is missing from the 1985 version? Is it qualitatively better, or just different because it reflects a 2005 perspective rather than a 1985 one?
We talk a lot about making questions the centre of our teaching. But , at least in the recent past (has the new English National Curriculum started to redress the balance?), these tend to be questions about texts as objects for analysis: how they work, their forms and features. The questions that Edmundson is encouraging, and the questions that animate me (and, I’m suggesting, animate students) are questions that are more to do with life, with the real world, than with the texts themselves.
Texts as windows rather than texts as objects.